FIRST CAUTIOUS STEPS TO A NEW WORLD
Over the next few months we're going to focus on individual dogs and their journeys as they work with us. We wanted to be able to show you how our dogs change using some easy, gentle strategies that don't need to take much time in these busy lockdown lives that many of us are facing at the moment.
Our first story is of Tia. Her mum has kindly written a background to the work that we're doing with Tia at the moment. She writes beautifully of a family who are still grieving the loss of their special boy, Keegan. Tia is helping them find a way through some of the shadows that have been with them since they lost their sweet old boy.
When you take a dog into your home, you have dreams of going for long walks, playing endless games of fetch in your garden and enjoying a couple of pints with your dog in the local beer garden. Meeting other dog owners and having those lovely conversations whilst your dogs lay patiently at your feet (actually this isn’t my dream, but I know lots of people get dogs so they can socialise with other owners) Spending long winter nights snuggled up on the sofa with your dogs by your side. This is our story of how one white underweight, very beautiful (I’m biased) rescue dog turned our lives, house and our heads upside down. She also taught our very well behaved staffie, how to be a little bit cheeky and naughty in his own way.
Tia came to live with us and our staffie Keegan, in Jan 2015, we knew from day one she would be an interesting addition to our household. We’d been told by the rescue centre that she’d been found as an underweight stray and was described as being around 6 months old, nervous of strangers and they were unsure if she was house trained. When I first went to meet her, the handler explained that I shouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t let me stroke her. I sat down and saw this skinny white leggy puppy being walked over, she looked at her handler, looked at me, looked back at her handler and then pulled towards me and put her head under my armpit. I knew then that she ‘had’ to come and live with us. We spent a couple of weeks introducing her to our other dog Keegan, by taking them for walks together to try and make sure they were both comfortable with each other.
When she came to live with us we quickly discovered that she was a very nervous dog, who couldn’t go for a walk without Keegan. We couldn’t actually get her off our drive without him. When we did go for a walk, as soon as she realised anyone was walking behind us she would lay down and be unable to move until they had passed. Anything from traffic, push bikes, people, birds flying, trees moving in the wind, anything was enough to frighten her and send her into a nervous wreck, where she would spin round on the end of her harness and scream like a banshee.
Meal times were a very noisy affair as she insisted on barking and jumping up excitedly wanting her food.
In our home she was frightened of feet, if we went upstairs and came down again she would bark at us, like she didn’t recognise us, she was fearful of my husband, loud noises, just about everything seemed to frighten her. She spent more time in her cage (she’s never shut in it) then she did with us as a family. The list of her issues just went on and we really did wonder what we had taken on.
We had worked with Fern a couple of years previously and had started using everything we’d learnt from our sessions before, which included positive training methods using a clicker. As she was very food motivated this seemed to work well.
An example was at meal times when she barked or jumped up, we would simply stop, turn away and wait until she was quiet and then start again. It did mean preparing her food could take up to half an hour. Our perseverance paid off, when I suddenly released one meal time there there was no barking I looked around and found her laid on her mat, waiting very quietly (we’ve never asked her to do this) She’s done this ever since.
When we came downstairs we always talked to her and called out her name, so that she could hear our voice. Our thinking was that even if she didn’t recognise our faces, she would hopefully recognise our voice. It took a few months, but it eventually worked and she stopped barking at us coming down the stairs.
Summer 2018 Tia had an X-ray for a stomach problem, it turned out it wasn’t a stomach issue, she actually had spondylosis of her spine and tail. Our vet feels she may have had this issue since birth. At home she jumps all over the furniture and quite happily chases Keegan around the fields on long walks. Due to her diagnosis we started to shorten their walks.
Then in January 2019 Keegan was diagnosed with prostate cancer and hip dysplasia. At this point in time, due to the work we’d been doing with Tia, she was doing fairly well on her walks, she’d started to happily approach people (we only let her approach people that were happy to be approached) and say hello. While she didn’t always want a fuss, the fact she wanted to say hello was massive step forward. Tia wasn’t as frightened of the big bad world and she seemed to actually enjoy her walks, she had even developed a little staffie wiggle.
Then March 2020 lockdown happened. This meant we didn’t see as many people on our walks and even if we did, we had to physically avoid them. As the months and lockdown went on, Keegan's health deteriorated which meant he could only go for 5-10 minute walks. Even at this point Tia still wouldn’t go for a walk without him, which meant her walks and socialisation were getting shorter too.
Keegan sadly lost his battle on the 2nd Jan 2020 and this has had a very big impact on Tia. Suddenly the world was a frightening place for her again. Even going into our own back garden (which she’s always enjoyed going into) seemed to be too much for her. In the house she’d become fearful of Tez and she wasn’t really sleeping. The only reason Tia would leave our drive was to go for a walk with Keegan’s best friend, a very old friendly, laid back, cross breed. She would sit shaking waiting until she saw him and then she’d get excited, pull to meet him and then lick his face and she’d happily go for a walk. We were worried that she would develop a dependency on this dog and that this could cause problems in the future too.
Whilst we tried really hard to help her adjust, we realised that we needed specialist help and contacted Fern. I sent her a video of Tia cowering on our front doorstep as I’d tried to do some training with her in our front garden, to try and help her adjust to walking on her own.
It may be that Tia needs to be a house dog going forwards and that the damage that was done to her at such a young crucial time in her development is just too much for her to overcome, but we will work with her, at her pace. We will give her as much time and attention as she wants, when she wants it, if she wants. Our house is her safe place and if this where she feels the safest that’s fine too.
This blog is going to be an insight into some of the work (I don’t want to call it training because it feels like more than that) we’re doing with Fern’s help, to see if we can help Tia feel a little bit safer and show her the world isn’t too frightening without her big brother by her side. It’s a learning curve for the three of us, as we learn about Tia being a dog as an individual and as Tia learns about life as a solo dog.